A tabbed terminal window began pulsing on screen, highlighting search results. Neal glanced over at the bored soldier on duty near the door. The guard was focused on a small display in the corner of the room, tuned to a cable news channel.
Neal clicked on the tab and reviewed the results. Paydirt. The scanner had found a vulnerable service and exploited it, gaining full access. Scrolling through the directories, he stopped at a recent entry labeled “Parkes”. Expanding the folder, Neal began reading the documents within.
It had all been a lie.
As Neal suspected, the “infection” was the cover story. The truth was even more horrifying, laid out in bullet-pointed paragraphs. A remote station had intercepted a signal and it was decoded, using similar techniques to Neal’s parser. An experiment based on the output had resulted in the complete destruction of their lab, nothing remaining except a 100 kilometer crater scooped out of the Earth’s crust.
A satellite photograph showed a perfect circle cut into the dirt, like a giant ice cream scoop had scraped the surface. The sky above had no clouds. None. Surrounding the crater, there was a secondary larger circle in the atmosphere where wispy cirrus clouds had been neatly bisected at the edges.
Neal looked over at the heavy insulators and coils near the center of the room. They were going to try to recreate this experiment here, but at a much larger scale. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, a white-hot jolt of adrenaline and fear rocketing up his spine.
Reading further, it became obvious that other countries were working on the same kind of device, all focused on eliminating key targets in locations around the globe. This had nothing to do with scientific discovery, it was a race to cripple entire nations.
The Chinese seemed closest, followed closely by the Russians and the Japanese. Neal scrolled further down the document, reading the tactical review and strategy summaries.
The camp they escaped from had been attacked by an outside military. They failed, thank goodness. Neal was sure there were other counter-offensives rippling across the globe, as each country fought to be the first to perfect this terrifying new weapon.
Reading further, multiple references to “Bootstrap” puzzled Neal. Frowning, he did a specific search for the same term. One hit. Clicking to the output, Neal began to read with rising horror. It all made sense now. The only question was, what he was he going to do about it.
A soft ping sounded in Reed’s ear, alerting him to an incoming message. Tapping his comm unit, he silently acknowledged the command. The foot-dragging astronomer was getting ideas. The countermeasures team had detected a network intrusion, origin traced back to Neal’s workstation.
Enough. This had to be stopped, now.
Reed unholstered his sidearm, running down the curved hallway. The base was already evacuating in anticipation of the next bombardment. They were protected under reinforced concrete and layers of soil, but it wouldn’t last forever. Neal had to deliver or they were all doomed.
Slamming open the door, Reed waved off the guard, walking briskly towards Neal, weapon drawn.
“Stop typing. Now. Hands where I can see them.”
Neal slowly put his hands up. Looking at Reed, eyes wide with shock.
“Are you going to shoot me?”
Reed pushed Neal aside, looking at the screen. There was one browser window open to a web search engine, articles listed in blue links.
“You have ten seconds to tell me exactly what you were doing.”, Reed tightened his grip, lowering the sights to Neal’s forehead.
“I was looking for resources to do my job. Did I set off something?”
“Have you figured out the R-Wave?”, Reed snapped.
“I’ve made some progress, but I needed some utilities that I didn’t have here. I’m sorry if I caused any alarm.”
Reed glared at Neal, slowly lowering his gun. No more fooling around. Time to get things in gear.
“Listen and listen good. I need you to give me something more than ‘I am working on it’ in very short order, or your next stop is going to be a hole six feet underground. Get me?”
Neal swallowed and nodded.
“Good. Now get to work, and if you need something – clear it through me first.”, Reed stomped over to the guard pointing back at Neal.
“If he so much as moves in the wrong direction, you have permission to shoot him between the eyes.”
Reed holstered his sidearm and exited into the hallway. Bombardment was incoming, estimated time winding down in precise digits on his watch. He had one more job to do before it all came down. Reed felt like he was back in the jungle, bleeding and alone.
Not this time. Not if he could help it.
Striding down the hall, Reed broke into a run as red lights strobed and sirens began wailing.
The ceiling shook, fine grit cascading from newly formed fissures.
(To be continued.)